Leahurst and Me by Agnes Winter (nee Mason) BVSc 1965, PhD 1990

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Class of 1961 outside a building
Vet Class of 1965, picture taken in 1961

As the Veterinary Faculty celebrated its first century in 2004, I realised, rather to my horror, that it was about half a century since I first contemplated a veterinary career. I was growing up on a small family farm in the Yorkshire Dales and the vet was a frequent visitor. My first memories are of Mr HM Holland, of the Holland and Bargh practice in Devonshire Street, Keighley, a forbidding picture dressed in a formal black suit and hat, who would arrive in a large black car and carrying a Gladstone bag. Epsom salts, red and black drinks, embrocation and mustard plasters featured in the range of treatments provided.

An early memory when I was perhaps 5 or 6 is of a visit to euthanase our old sheepdog and I desperately wanted to see this carried out but was firmly banned. As I grew older I became increasingly involved with helping my father look after the animals. By the time I was 14 I had decided I definitely wanted to be a vet, and for the next 10 years haunted this practice which still served our farm. By that time it had been taken over by Donald Campbell and George Crabtree. I owe them a massive debt of gratitude for not trying to put me off, and for putting up with me for every weekend and holiday moment that I could possibly squeeze in. Donald’s young children often accompanied him on his rounds in school holidays. One of them was Alastair – yes that Alastair Campbell. ‘Don’t do that Alastair’ was a common refrain! George Crabtree was a meticulous small animal surgeon, as well as a highly competent farm animal vet. I learnt most of my small animal skills from him.

By the time I applied for vet school, I’d already seen a wide range of veterinary work and was proficient at milking cows, looking after lambing sheep and harnessing up and working our carthorse. I applied to Bristol, my first choice, and Liverpool. Bristol rejected me. How would my life have differed had they decided to take me, I wonder? Anyway, in between making my application and getting an interview at Liverpool, my biology teacher at school had taken her sixth formers on a day trip to a meeting held at …. Leahurst. It was a long way for a day trip in those days – bus from Skipton to Manchester, then a lift with someone else attending the meeting, through the Mersey Tunnel for the first time, and I certainly remember getting lost in the lanes of Wirral before we finally made it. Leahurst made a big impression on me. Little was I to realise how much it would feature in my life.

I got an interview at Liverpool. I went on the train by myself (no fussy accompanying parents in those days) and eventually found the Vet School, then in an old Georgian house in Bedford Street North. The interview panel consisted of some formidable elder statesmen of the vet school, led by the great Professor John George Wright. He led off by observing that I had put Bristol as my first choice. ‘Ah but I’ve changed my mind’ I said; ‘I’ve visited Leahurst and I want to go there’. Some more questions about my reading habits (Dorothy Sayers) and a sexist comment from one interviewer about women always getting married and wasting their education; then from JG as to whether I had seen a cow’s placenta and what did it look like, and I was in! There was another visit to Liverpool to be interviewed for a place in the newly-built Dale Hall – the elegant and rather formidable Miss Leece, with her pug, was in charge there.

So to the end of September 1960 and to Dale Hall. For a country girl from a farm with a loo at the bottom of the garden and a bath across the yard in the wash house, it was another world – central heating and a bathroom between two! What luxury. In those days the sexes were segregated with the boys mainly down the road at Derby and Rathbone Halls. The early 60’s was the era of Elvis – his songs still transport me back to Dale Hall – and the Beatles, who I think played at a University hop before they became famous.

4 vet students from the 1960s sit outside a building in the summer

Agnes, (second on the right) with non-veterinary peers at Dale Hall

So we assembled, about 35 of us, of whom only 6 were girls – how different from today’s gender mix. The new vet building on Brownlow Hill was not quite finished so we spent the first term based in Bedford Street North, in a warren of rooms in the old and rickety Georgian house. In the second term of first year we moved into the new vet building (now gone too – buildings don’t last long these days). In those days it provided all the facilities you could want for 4 years of students – in total about 140. Now there are more than that in each year.

A lot of the first year was a complete waste of time – even though we mostly had science A levels, we had to take physics, chemistry, botany and zoology again. Memories of cutting thin sections of plant stems with cut throat razors come to mind. My physics practical book showed we did exciting things such as finding the surface tension of ink, working out Young’s Modulus and verifying Newton’s second Law of Motion. It did, however, give us a chance to get the novelty of being a student and away from home out of our hair.  We did some anatomy with Jim Dransfield (Osteology and Arthrology – remember?), including dissecting formalin-impregnated ponies, and most people also owned a horse’s skull bones by this stage (sold on to us by students a couple of years ahead) so we could name each individual bone and all the foramina. Jim ruled us with a rod of iron (but was a very kind man underneath). The register was taken at the beginning of each class and I can still recite it all these years later.

We also did physiology, which we shared with the medics, where frogs’ legs and hearts and smoked cylinders featured large with Mr Singleton and Geoff Kidd. We did animal management with Dr J O L (Jo) King and Roger Ewbank. This continued as animal husbandry throughout the second year when Tim Glover appeared and tried to shock us with his lectures on reproduction. In 2nd and 3rd years we also did biochemistry with Dr M McC Barnes. Who remembers Barfoed’s test, Seliwanoff’s test and Bial’s test? The last biochemistry practical test in my book (which alas I no longer have as I ditched all my notebooks when I moved after retiring), dated 5th June 1962, was to identify enzymes and their substrates. I obviously didn’t do very well – scrawled all over the page is ‘Rubbish! Very poor.’ A practical exam paper lurking in my book from March 1963 allowed us 3 hours to determine how much water had been added to a sample of milk.

In the July of 2nd year we spent a whole month at Leahurst doing practical animal management. We learnt all about tacking up horses, casting with side lines and milking cows (I was already good at this of course), as well as seeing some clinical work. I remember having to put the great JG’s glasses on for him as he operated on a horse in one of the paddocks. We found the Tudor Rose, the Shrew, the Wheatsheaf at Raby (all pubs), Parkgate shrimps and ice cream and the rowing boats at Raby Mere.

Most of 3rd and 4th years were spent doing pathology, bacteriology, parasitology and animal husbandry. Among others we were taught by Professor Dai Hughes, John McC Howell, Jack Tomlinson and, in the School of Tropical Medicine, a fairly impatient long-haired Michael Clarkson (he’s mellowed a bit since then!). By this time we’d mostly moved out of halls into digs or flats. My 3rd year was spent in digs just off Penny Lane (Ramilies Road), in a house occupied by the landlady and her aunt both, amazingly, called Agnes! I think that’s why I got the room which, I seem to remember, cost £3/15/- a week for half board. On my first night there I remember I felt dreadfully alone after the companionship of being in hall. The bus went up Smithdown Road where it passed a cowshed on the right hand side completely surrounded by shops and houses, with a flying herd of cows providing milk for the locals.

The winter of 1962-3 was one of the coldest on record. The water pipes in the house froze up for weeks on end so I scrounged baths back in Hall from friends still resident there.  The cars did ‘wheelies’ on an ice-covered car park near the vet building (no problems parking in those days). I didn’t have a car, but some in the year had a fantastic array of MGs and Morgans which frequently had their innards taken apart but also provided trips to North Wales and the Lake District. For 4th Year, I moved a couple of streets and shared a flat in Crawford Avenue, also just off Penny Lane, with Sally Longbottom who had a splendid vintage MG by this time.

Meetings of the Liverpool University Veterinary Society provided a bit of light entertainment. I particularly remember Eddie Straiton (a well-known vet with whom I later crossed swords because of his views of females in the profession) trying to shock us by showing a film of childbirth. After these meetings it was normal practice for some of the officers of LUVS to entertain the visiting speaker to a meal. In 4th year I was treasurer of LUVS and on the evening of 22nd November 1963, I, along with Paul Reilly and Chris Townsend, was entertaining Professor Fitzpatrick  (known to everyone as Fitz), who had just been appointed to the clinical department but not yet taken up his post. We were in an Indian restaurant somewhere near the Liverpool Playhouse when one of the waiters asked if we had heard about President Kennedy – yes, I do remember what I was doing when I heard about JFK.

In the last term of 4th year we started the clinical course. Most of this term was spent in the Small Animal Hospital in London Road, just past Tropical Medicine. This was the original horse hospital and had a cobbled central yard. Joan Joshua (‘Auntie Joan’) had just been appointed to oversee small animal teaching. Ron Jones was the anaesthetist. Les Arnall was there with his bull terriers. Some of the staff from Leahurst came across to give lectures and we were introduced to Barrie Edwards’ superb drawing skills as we learnt about the goings on in horses’ and cows’ abdomens. Bill Faull and Roger Dalton also joined the clinical staff.

During all the vacations I had still been spending most of my time at Campbell and Crabtree in Keighley. Small animal consultations cost between 5/- (25p) and 10/- (50p). A cat spey was about £1/10/- and a bitch spey £2/10/- I think. I was learning to stitch up wounds (I particularly remember a whippet which had a huge skin tear on its back and I was given the task of putting together this large jigsaw puzzle of skin flaps); to spey cats and assisting with most other operations, cleaning instruments, sterilising them in an autoclave (like a big pressure cooker) and cleaning out kennels. Syringes were made of glass and kept in a tray of disinfectant. Needles (Hauptner fitting) were resharpened on a whetstone and reused numerous times. We prepared intravenous injections of ‘glucomag’ for cows with ketosis, powders for blood in the milk and cleansing drenches. As a student on rounds it was my job to open gates – many farms had several between the road and the farm (I think the record was seven). Cows were tied by the neck in cowsheds (as were ours at home). To my mind, cowsheds were, on the whole, much more pleasant than the early cow cubicles that followed them. We did rectals and cleansed cows without the benefit of protective gloves and were lucky not to catch brucellosis. I remember dropping the large needle (14g 2.5 inch) off the end of a flutter valve I was holding, into the straw bedding. We never found it so I hope it didn’t end up in a cow’s stomach or foot. 

Official Class of 1961 photo

Summer term 1965

Eventually came Final Year and we were out at Leahurst at last. Most of us lived in – the girls upstairs in the house and the boys in the old and new annexes. Three or 4 people were married by then and had special dispensation to live out, but living out was much frowned on. This was the era of Paul Neal, Harry Ritchie, Ben Burrows and a young Barrie Edwards. We were also taught by EG (‘Egg’) White, Gus Walton and Frank Jordan who were based in the Prev Med building where I had my office from 1986 to 2008. The new broom Fitz was in position.  He was my tutor for Final Year and once left his diary lying about in the common room. In it were exam marks achieved by his tutees and I was horrified to find how close I had come to failing physiology!

We still had some lectures in a room fitted out as a lab in what is now part of the library, but we spent a lot of time seeing cases in the Hospital or out on the Practice. Horses were referred in, often for lameness or injuries, and there were plenty of cows (my main interest) at Hanns Hall, Puddington, Ashfield Hall and Job’s, among others, and pigs at Bibby’s too. We got a lot of cows referred into Leahurst for abdominal surgery, particularly for caesareans and DA (displaced abomasum) ops. Quite a lot of the caesareans came in out-of-hours so we would be called blearily-eyed to assist in the middle of the night. We could all do paravertebrals (anaesthesia of the flank) with our eyes shut.

At lunchtime, evenings and weekends in good weather there was cricket on the lawn (how could they build on it? That vandalism started during the last part of our time there). There were parties with barrels of beer brought in for the occasion. There was a TV in the common room, a novelty for me, and many nights were spent swotting with one eye and watching the Magic Roundabout or Z Cars with the other. Miss Hartley ruled in the kitchen and we knew by the day of the week what would be on the menu. Dr (Jo) King was warden. He had some experimental rabbits. Was it coincidence that rabbit featured on the menu quite frequently? Henry Ford appeared on the scene and stayed in Leahurst House until his family joined him.

At last came Final exams – back to Chatham Street to the examination hall (an old chapel I think) and 8 three hour written papers over 4 days. When I finished teaching, students thought they were badly done to if they had 3 three hour papers spread over a week. Then practicals and orals. Paul Neal had asked me something about the physics of radiation in my mock oral. I had got it wildly wrong then and I got it wrong again now. Clearly the 1st year physics hadn’t done much for me. But I passed (results were posted on a notice board in Leahurst House hallway for all to see) and the lure of Leahurst was such that I stayed another 2 years as house surgeon (what would be called an intern today), particularly enjoying the farm practice work (I remember the cowmen Jim, Selwyn, Bill, Dick and Arthur, as well as the manager at Woodpark, Joe Walker, with whom I was particularly friendly), and the plentiful referred bovine surgery.

I lived first in Leahurst House, then in a room at the far end of the new annexe and finally, after Gus Walton moved out, in the flat at the end of the new annexe (King House as it became named). Barrie lived in the flat at the top of Leahurst House with his black Labrador, Tosca, until he married Sue. We were joined at lunch in the hostel by new postgrads Dick Jones and Janet Bradbury, who worked on poultry diseases with Frank Jordan, and a young Bob Ward joined Fitz in the new Wellcome Building. I babysat for Ron Jones and Henry Ford. I bought a new Mini which got stolen one night but was fortunately found unharmed at Chester station next morning. Barrie had a new MG which, one day, got sat on by a cow. Paul Neal had a grey VW Beetle, Harry had a green Hillman Imp and Ben had a Blue Morris Minor, nowhere near as classy as many of the student cars my year had had.

I left Leahurst regretfully on 29th September 1967 (I still have the signed book presented to me on that day). I spent an interesting month in the vet school in Copenhagen before returning to a job in practice in Mold, NE Wales, helped to get this by Barrie who did locums there. On my first day in Mold I met my future husband, Tom, so having gone to Liverpool rather than Bristol certainly determined the major course of my life! Foot and Mouth disease had just been diagnosed in Shropshire and Cheshire and practice calls stopped virtually overnight so I went to the MAFF Chester office to help and stayed until Christmas. I diagnosed FMD on several farms in Cheshire and oversaw slaughtering and burial or burning of the animals. There is a field I used to pass occasionally on the main road east out of Chester where I know there are many cattle and sheep buried – I wonder who else remembers now.

Still I couldn’t keep away from Leahurst so, after I had married and spent 17 years doing part-time practice combined with life as a farmer’s wife, on 13th January 1986 (I can remember the date because David Lodge’s book ‘Nice Work’ starts on the same date) I went back again to begin my PhD with Michael Clarkson as my supervisor. I spent the rest of my career there – as lecturer, senior lecturer, Head of Farm Animals, and finally as Head of the Department of Veterinary Clinical Science in the footsteps of John George Wright, Fitz, Henry, Michael and Barrie before retiring at the end of September 2008 as an Honorary Professor. And I didn’t remain faithful to my first love, cows, but ultimately became a sheep specialist.

Most of my year group have kept in touch and we had reunions every 5-10 years whilst everyone was busy with their careers and families. More recently, we have started meeting up every two years. Sadly, we have lost a number of friends but will continue meeting up as long as we are able to celebrate and remember the strong bonds which started with meeting up in 1960. We were due to celebrate these 60 years in June 2020 at Leahurst but sadly COVID-19 has put paid to that, so, hopefully, it will be a 61 year celebration in 2021.